12/21/2012 12:05 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Monopolism and the Longing for Citizenship

There is a healthy battle taking place between the wave that advocates the principles of modern citizenship making its way into the Arab region, and the culture of traditional and religious monopolism. In truth, the transitional phase unfolding in the Arab world is not limited to what has happened and what continues to happen in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are also experiencing radical changes, but not as a result of revolutions, as much as of new facts about their natural resources, which had hitherto made them the kingpins of energy and many rare types of crude oil. One common trait among the Middle East, the Maghreb and the Gulf regions of the Arab world is that they are all in dire in need for institutional reforms, institutions for democracy and for sound citizenship. To be sure, the features of the region are being altered by both an internal dynamic, for example as a result of youth activism at times; and an external dynamic, for example as a result of technological breakthroughs and discoveries of hydrocarbon-rich underground formations in North America - said to be poised to offset Gulf oil by 2020. It is not politics that is determining the outlines of the new regional order, on the basis of understandings here or bargains there, as it has been the norm, or following an American or Russian decision. Instead, there is a new dynamic that is now the crucial and major factor in shaping the alternative regional order. This requires both rulers and businessmen and women, to acknowledge what needs to be done in the transitional phase, so that they do not find themselves caught suddenly in the eye of the storm.

Many who until recently were ruling strongmen, were toppled by the storm, while many private interests, which had benefited for a long time from their partnerships with the men of the regime at the expense of sound citizenship and the rule of institutions, were caught off guard. Indeed, the winds of change continue to blow across the Arab region, threatening to cast off anyone who believes what is happening is only a fleeting event. Here, some like to argue that the United States was behind the quake, the awakening, the uprising or the revolution - call it what you like - in the Arab region, and that it is the U.S. that is putting together the new regional order. Perhaps that is true, for those who believe that U.S. strategies are drafted by the American establishment, regardless of whether the policy pursued by the White House is Obama's isolationism, or George W. Bush's military interventionism. Yet others maintain that the U.S. is always blamed, no matter what it does, while its real role is dwarfed by the magnitude of the impressions about it that only exist in the minds of others. The proponents of this view go on to say that these impressions serve the U.S. image, and propel it towards being one of a superpower that knows exactly what it is doing, never making mistakes or arbitrary decisions - when reality tells us otherwise.

Whatever view one chooses, the U.S. remains a leading player that affects the fate of the Arab region, and is an active participant in building the new regional order. Yet this is not for exclusively American reasons, and is also the consequence of the failures and shortcomings of others. For instance, Russia, which is at the center of much tumult and nostalgia to nationalism and dictatorship, has found itself in a state of near paralysis after it undermined its own position, disabled the instruments of its influence and sidelined itself from any role in shaping the new regional order.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, meanwhile, has failed to export the revolution that it initiated 33 years earlier. Even after George W. Bush's war on Iraq led to the latter's removal from the strategic-military equation with Israel, and handed the country over to Iran on a golden platter, Tehran failed to export the Mullahs' revolution to the Iraqi interior. The Iranian regime also failed in its strategy to deploy into the Mediterranean shores through Syria and Lebanon. Instead, the regime has fallen into paralysis and isolation, giving in to international sanctions while combating internal efforts for reform, in the process taking Iran backwards by decades.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood believed itself to be the miracle of the twenty-first century. The Islamist group and its followers rode on the dovetails of the movement for change and hijacked the uprising of the youths to climb on their backs to power. But when they savored its taste, they soon became afflicted by a monopolist disease of sorts. The Muslim Brotherhood thus turned its tenure into a bitter transitional period. The group lost the chance to move away from monopolism to constructive attitudes, and the possibility for it to take part in charting a new order for the region. The Jihadis and Salafis believe that it is them who draw the features of the regional order, not only in the Arab region, but across the whole wide world. But the fact of the matter is that they are on the sidelines when it comes to shaping any new or old order, primarily because they are only masters of destruction, and because they have made it unambiguously clear that they do not intend to be tolerant of others.

What is happening in Egypt is a case in point for the naivety of those who seek to monopolize decision-making. They thought that being in power would allow them to crackdown on the aspirations of the young people who brought about change in Egypt - before the Muslim Brotherhood commandeered their achievements. They thought that the constitution was a document that could be tailored to fit the Muslim Brotherhood alone, by ignoring the principle that states that constitutions are collective decisions and a reference point for all. They were caught by surprise by the civil disobedience that came from Tahrir Square, from both younger and older generations, and from women, men and children. They were surprised, but they did not back down, and herein lies the test ahead. The battle to impose the constitution, as conceived by the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, is nothing short of being a battle for the future of Egypt. The decision by the president and the Muslim brotherhood to force this battle on Egypt demonstrates that their ideology comes first, even if that is at the expense of the country and its future.

For the Muslim Brotherhood then, this is a fateful battle and the last - and first - chance to monopolistically impose its ideology on the government and the country, without consulting the democratic "ballot boxes." The Brotherhood understands that Egypt is in danger of sliding into chaos, fragmentation, bloody unrest and economic collapse. And yet, its priority is to clutch on to power no matter what, and monopolize it at any cost. The Brotherhood is no doubt also aware that passing the constitution will lead to a bloody insurrection, and not just civil disobedience. It no doubt knows that Egypt is on the verge of insolvency because the battle that will follow that of the constitution will be a battle to overthrow the regime. But, despite all this, the Islamist group has resolved to fight for its ideology and its political party, rather than seek the advancement of Egypt and change its course from dependency and sleeping on its laurels, to actual participation in decision-making and shaping a new regional order.

The youth of Egypt, however, may do otherwise. For one thing, it seems that they are determined to continue the march of change. They understand the rules of civil disobedience and do not want to turn it into a bloody confrontation. These youths are on the front lines of the war on monopoly. In Egypt as in all Arab countries, there is a caste of business men and women who can be said to serve their private interests above all else, thus acting as an "interests class." Some in this class belong to the generation that failed to bring about change, while others belong to the generation of change. For this class, the notion of citizenship remains marginal as its priority is to maintain its interests, even if this meant signing a pact with the devil. The members of this class sit on the throne of finance and are on par with those who sit on the seat of power, in that they both conspire against institutionalism. They believe themselves to be above the law, thinking perhaps that the word "businessman" exempts them from being held to account. They are the permanent accomplices of every regime, no matter what its nature may be.

It is time for the men and women of this class to realize that citizenship is their duty, and not a choice that they can dodge, and to understand that refusing to build the institutions necessary for democracy will backfire against them, no matter how much money they may have accumulated. For one thing, citizenship and the modern state are not just the responsibility of the government or the regime, but also the people, led by their business elite. The latter must contribute in education and the efforts to eliminate illiteracy, as well as participating in building the institutions that are the pillars of democracy. Investment in building a modern state is an ineluctable imperative; otherwise, accountability lies in the offing. In the minds of many, monopoly of money and monopoly of power are both scourges of the same variety. Therefore, it is necessary to address this sentiment instead of continuing to snub people and sound citizenship.

No one denies that there are rights due to successful individuals, to creativity and to competence, but there is a dangerous gap today between the elite and the people, one that borders on instituting a total dichotomy. This is an ominous phenomenon in the era of change, whose proponents are not only rising against the monopoly of power, but also against the financial elite's monopoly of money and influence. Nevertheless, this does not absolve the entitlement culture that has spread among many of the peoples of the Arab region, a culture based on receiving without giving; on rights without duties; and on a tendency for exploitation which followed from monopolism in the life of tribes, especially those dwelling in the desert. Indeed, the people are not exempted from having to adhere to the principles of sound citizenship, particularly since change is coming from all directions.

The GCC countries are required today to go back to the drawing board, not because of a decision taken by them, but because technological breakthroughs and the future of oil and gas compels them to think seriously about the need for internal reforms, openness and equality as well as the need to establish institutions for investment other than those that have been in use for decades. These countries are in the process of assessing the state of their resources and their future, in light of falling - if not collapsing - gas prices, and the inevitable drop in oil prices with the U.S. achieving energy independence from the Gulf within only 7 years. What these countries will have to reevaluate, sooner or later, is their entire investment strategies, so that they would not inherit the so-called "white elephant", and so that the unwritten pact among rulers, businessmen and the working class does not collapse. To be sure, this configuration is going to change drastically, and it is necessary to study all options, speed up reforms and begin a serious process to adopt institutional citizenship rather than the current system of entitlement where the state acts as a steward.

Change marches on or is coming, and the transitional period in the entire Arab region requires a new social pact that is not limited to the traditional poles - i.e. the rulers and business leaders. Undeniably, the change that has originated in the Arab sphere has carried with it radical requirements, including the right to social mobility and advancement through skill and competence - and not through dictates or subservience. And change came from beyond the region by virtue of sober policies based on independence and technological superiority, aimed at effacing dependency.

The features of the new regional order are not the same as they used to be in the era of reclusion, subservience and obedience. It is a new exciting day, and certainly also a scary one. The pendulum of change has yet to come to rest, and will not come to rest as long as the tendencies for monopolism have begun a fateful battle against a new tendency for sound citizenship and equality.

The path that lies ahead is a long one indeed.